Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

December 29, 2009

An ‘Obama doctrine’ in the Middle East: Realistic pragmatism?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Helena Cobban @ 4:42 pm

This special contribution comes from CNI President Eugene Bird

Has a doctrine for dealing with the four major problems in the Middle East and South Asia emerged from the first eleven months of the Obama Administration? This question is now much discussed among Washington’s foreign policy analysts, with the words “pragmatic” and “realistic” seemingly interchangeable in their analyses.

The administration, and particularly the President himself, appears to set realistic, if somewhat idealistic goals, and then works toward these goals using his “bully pulpit” to persuade both the Congress and the American public that they should find a way to reach these goals in the Middle East. Special peace envoy Senator George Mitchell has been assured of the President’s support in the face of diplomatic snubs by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

For the first time in history, an Israeli Foreign Minister is not being welcomed in the major capitals and has had to confine himself so far to visiting minor states of Africa and Russia. He has been banned from visiting Cairo because of his statements about Palestinians and his refusal of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan river. A story going the rounds in Jerusalem is that when he does meet with Sen. Mitchell, he will leave the room if Mitchell even mentions Jerusalem. The Foreign Minister called in all of the key Israeli ambassadors from around the world for a five-day conference during the holidays to discuss what can be done to retrieve the tattered Israeli reputation stemming from the events in Gaza and the West Bank.

A panel discussion about the Obama Doctrine at the centrist New America Foundation December 14 was informative but hardly conclusive. Is the present team of the advisers closely connected to the Israel lobby around the President pragmatic about changing the world from Suez to Pakistan? Or have they become more realistic in defining the limits of American power? The panelists included top media personalities Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, Peter Beinart of the New America Foundation, and David Sanger of The New York Times. They seemed to agree only on this: Obama is still searching for a consistent basis for judging policy choices within the limits of American power.

Will the practical domestic politics of an administration facing huge deficits, direct challenges to its leadership, a no-win situation in Afghanistan, and clear limits on its economic power, allow for effective American moves to change facts on the ground in Israel/Palestine?

And meanwhile, what about the endless peace process?  If the administration wants to end the siege on Gaza (as Gen. Jones and Hillary Clinton have both said they want to do), they will need to confront the Israeli government on this.  The administration has already expended much political capital pursuing a freeze on Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank that has shown no significant returns.  Indeed, the Netanyahu government seems bent on encouraging the expansion of the settlements and trying to turn Washington’s attention to Iran and Syria instead of the peace diplomacy.

The President said earlier this year that progress on the Israel/Palestinian problem would help resolve all of the other problem areas in the Middle East. Yet the efforts to curb or even topple the Hamas government and keep the Rafah crossing tightly closed continue. And no practical moves to end the siege of Gaza have been made by the administration.

Glenn Kessler, the diplomatic correspondent (and former Jerusalem correspondent) of The Washington Post, pointed out that during the serious strategic talks with China, the one request of the Chinese delegation was for several briefings from the Americans– not about American foreign and defense policy, but about the health care legislation and its expected impact on the deficit. They seemed more concerned about interest rates than on what America and its western allies would do in the Middle East with regard to Israel and Iran. China depends on Iran for about 15 percent of its oil imports and any disruption of Iranian oil exports as a result of either an Israeli pr American action would impact on relations with China.

With regard to the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, Kessler suggested that if Israel did launch an attack because they judged that the expected new sanctions were not working, and some Israeli planes could not make it back, they might well ask for overflight or even landing rights in Iraq. What, he asked, would the President do to save the lives of Israeli pilots?

The limits on American economic and defense involvement in settling new crises and containing failing states will impact on our moral leadership, all the panelists at the New America Foundation agreed. Does America now share with Israel an erosion of influence?

The President emphasized “Just war” in accepting the Nobel peace prize. Yet collective action possibilities are much more difficult. The President has made more public speeches outside the United States in his first year than any of his predecessors. But during the campaign, and then again in April in his historic Prague speech, he called for a world without nuclear weapons.  Sadly, he’s done little to follow through on that program since then.

The new chief defense adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ephraim Sneh, told participants in CNI’s November 2008 “political pilgrimage” study tour “No one should try to tell Israel to end its nuclear weapons program. If they do try, we will show them the door.”

Will Obama eventually choose to try for effective controls on all of the proliferators in the world?

Glen Kessler cited to the audience at the New America Foundation the comment of Henry Kissinger concerning the President’s first year in office, “He reminds me of a Grand Chess master moving about and playing twenty games at the same time.» Coming from one of the most traveled Secretaries of State, perhaps that can be considered a compliment.

A better simile would be that the President is more like Mohammed Ali, bobbing and weaving his way through a tough prize fight.

For myself, I would view the President as a potentially great President, but one who will need constant input from all of us, and informed advice to both his circle of advisers and to key politicians on Capitol Hill. The President will listen to realities and then deal pragmatically with policy. On the Middle East, particularly Israel, where he is thoroughly unpopular, he will predictably act slowly, and everyone should listen to his carefully drafted speeches here and abroad.

Perhaps major peaceful demonstrations or even violence on the ground will overtake the current Mitchell attempts to kick-start the negotiations. And then is when the Administration may be forced to actions on the Israel/Palestinian game that now seem out of reach.

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